Download or listen to Holy Thursday: “The Greatest Mystery”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Tonight we celebrate the greatest mystery of our Faith. It is the Passover meal of Yahweh for Israel’s journey out of Egypt transformed into Christ’s Passover meal for our journey out of death and into life. But how can I call it the greatest mystery, when we think of the Incarnation of Christ in the womb of the Virgin? How can I call it the greatest, when we think of the mystery of God-in-flesh dying on a cross? How can I call it the greatest, when we think of that same Jesus breaking the bonds of death and leaving behind an empty tomb? Because the Supper which our Lord gave to His Apostles to hand on to His Church is all of that and more delivered to you in what looks like almost nothing. This is the way of our God: He chooses the simple, physical things of this earth to deliver the immense, spiritual things of heaven. In the Supper, He uses bread and wine, the basic food of the body, to deliver His Body and Blood, food for body and soul. In the Supper, He joins you to Himself so that your body, which consumes His Body, will be raised from the dead, incorruptible as Christ. It is the gift of the Incarnation, put into your hands and mouth, so that you, like Simeon, can sing, “Lord, lettest now Thy servant depart in peace…for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.” It is the gift of the Lord’s death, eaten, drunk, and proclaimed to the whole world. It is the gift of the resurrection, the medicine of immortality to counteract the sickness of sin. This is the purest, sweetest, clearest Gospel because it is not your work, but Christ’s; it is all forgiveness, which cannot be earned; and it is all for you, freely given. This is, as the catechism says so simply, forgiveness of sins; and where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation (SC, Sacrament of the Altar III).
All this He gives us in His Last Will and Testament in the hours before His betrayal and death. Even while He puts His hand into the dish with His betrayer; even as His fearful disciples, suffering in their sorrow, ask, “Is it I, Lord?”; even as He is about to go out to the Garden to pray and entrust Himself to His Father’s will; even while darkness seems to reign: He gives and gives and gives. He takes on the form of a servant, as His disciples argue about whom among them is the greatest. He gives all this, and we, for our part, do not feel any real need for the Sacrament. “It is certainly true,” Luther wrote, “as I have found in my own experience, and as everyone will find in his or her own case, that if a person stays away from the sacrament, day by day he or she will become more callous and cold and eventually spurn it altogether” (LC, Sacrament of the Altar, 53). The fact that we do not feel our need only shows that our flesh is leprous, “which feels nothing although it rages with disease and gnaws away at itself” (ibid., 77). “In short, the less you feel your sins and infirmities, the more reason you have to go to the sacrament and seek its help and remedy” (ibid., 78). We must confess: it is I, Lord, who betray You with my silence; it is I who have hardened my heart against repentance; it is for my sin that you have died. And still we wonder how Judas, or Peter, or the frantic mob could do what they did! St. John Chrysostom warns us: “Consider how indignant you are against the traitor, against them that crucified Him. Look therefore, lest you also yourself become guilty of the body and blood of Christ. They slaughtered the all-holy body, but you receive it in a filthy soul after such great benefits. For neither was it enough for Him to be made man, to be smitten and slaughtered, but He also commingles Himself with us, and not by faith only, but also in very deed makes us His body. … Consider with what sort of honor you were honored, of what sort of table you are partaking. That which when angels behold, they tremble, and dare not so much as look up at it without awe on account of the brightness that comes from there, with this we are fed, with this we are commingled, and we are made one body and one flesh with Christ. “Who shall declare the mighty works of the Lord, and cause all His praises to be heard?” [Psalm 106:2] (St. John Chrysostom, Homily LXXXII:5 [http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf110.iii.LXXVIII.html]).
For this, your Lord took on flesh in the womb of Mary; for this, your Lord lived a blameless life in full obedience to His Father; for this, your Lord let Himself be betrayed into the hands of sinners; for this, your Lord let Himself be mocked, and beaten, and spit upon, and crucified; for this, He did not call down legions of His angels, but drank the cup of suffering all the way to the dregs; for this, He breathed His last; for this, He descended into hell, breaking down its gates and declaring victory; for this, He rose in new, but scarred flesh; and for this, He ascended into heaven. So that you can eat the limitless flesh and blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus sent His Holy Spirit upon His Apostles, and His pastors after them, and told them to do this in remembrance of Him. See how He loves you! See what He spent to cleanse you of your sin! See how closely He unites Himself with you, more closely at the Table than anywhere else! “Here our true Paschal Lamb we see, whom God so freely gave us; He died on the accursed tree—so strong His love—to save us. See, His blood now marks our door; faith points to it; death passes o’er, and Satan cannot harm us” (LSB 458:5). Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! The Feast is prepared; the holy Things for the holy Ones. Come and taste life in the midst of death.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/19/11